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By Dean Dirks, Dirks & Associates LLC
There is always a fine line between paranoia and reality, with the recent swine flu outbreak being a classic example.
Pork producers lost millions of dollars because people believed eating pork would cause swine flu. Even though that is not possible, you couldn't convince the public of it. It was hard to decide whether the swine flu epidemic was as bad as it seemed -- or a product of sensationalized cable TV.
During that time, I was scheduled to go to Texas to work on a project for Church's Fried Chicken, with most of the locations within 30 miles of the Mexican border. I was confronted with the paranoia vs. reality syndrome. I was leaning toward canceling the trip and probably losing the client, until my wife did some research. Last year, more people in the world were killed by coconuts than swine flu.
I am not downplaying the horrible swine flu epidemic, just trying to put it into perspective. At the end of the day, I realized I was going to make my decision purely based on fear rather than logic.
How does fear affect the foodservice industry?
If people were willing to quit eating pork because of uneducated fear, then those same consumers likely also convinced themselves to stay away from convenience store foodservice and fast feeders that gave them any perception of potential swine flu risk.
My concern is the long-term effects the swine flu may have on our industry. Some health departments have been talking about making fast feeders dispense soda lids, bulk condiments and other food items behind the counter rather than in the dining area. As painful as it may be, it makes sense.
As consumers were being told the best way to avoid swine flu is to constantly wash their hands, some people went so far as to not shake hands to avoid the risk of grabbing someone's unwashed hand. Given such cautions, concern about other people touching your soda lid is understandable.
While fast feeders are not thrilled with the prospect of moving products behind the service counter, they are weighing this inconvenience vs. the high cost of lawsuits for not taking proper action. And more important is the potential loss of business from the perception of a lack of food safety.
The c-store industry has significantly higher exposure to possible changes in health department codes. Grilled hot dogs, nachos, condiment bars, soda cups, soda lids, coffee cups/lids, bulk coffee creamers and open coffee pots, to name a few, may be at risk. If the health codes are changed, labor will have to be increased and foodservice profitably will be at risk.
Retailers should therefore approach foodservice with the possibility of new health department codes. While it may never happen, a contingency plan is a good idea.
-- Develop an action plan should these health codes come to fruition.
-- Make strategic decisions based on the possibility of new health codes. For example, opening a salad bar at this time would be a poor long-term decision.
-- Determine which products are exposed to the public and what your solution will be.
-- Review foodservice items that will not comply with possible food safety codes.
-- Address presentation to avoid the paranoia vs. reality syndrome. Give customers a better perception of food safety. For example, coffee pump pots give the customer a better perception than coffee pots exposed to the air and vulnerable to human contamination.
-- More than anything else, educate and push employees for better presentation. Go into any fast feeder and you will see employees wiping their face, touching their nose, coughing into the air. It goes on and on. It is bad enough these practices happen, but now people are watching.
I was in a big-name chain recently and asked an employee how she was doing. She said, "I am a little sick, but not contagious." I thought to myself that she shouldn't be working and surely shouldn't be telling people she was sick. Unfortunately, the swine flu fear is not going away and an action plan is critical -- not necessarily because of reality, but because of paranoia.
Other columns by Dean Dirks:
The Value of Foodservice
Calorie Count Laws Provide Marketing Opportunities
Fast Food Franchisee Challenges
Never Let the Customer Leave Unhappy
Food Safety Paramount, Especially in C-store Business
Marketing in Today's Foodservice Environment
Learning from the Competition
Managing Foodservice Labor
The 1 Percent Edge
If you have a question for Dean, please e-mail CSNews at [email protected].